Migrating Knowledge: Schooling, Statelessness and Safety at the Thailand-Burma Border

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There are approximately 1.5 million migrant workers from Burma living in Thailand. The majority work as day laborers on farms, in factories, in fishing and seafood processing industries, and on construction sites. They eke out a subsistence living, are vulnerable to trafficking, largely marginalized in Thai society, and often work in exploitative conditions. They live in fear of detection by the Thai authorities because they're at risk of deportation and extortion due to their illegal status.

A vast majority of people in Burma negotiate their lives amidst decades of armed conflict between several ethnic armies and the repressive Burmese junta. The Burmese migrant community, despite facing social dislocation and poverty, has established schools in Mae Sot, a town at the Thailand-Burma border accorded by the Royal Thai Government with privileged trading terms for manufacturing exports. Mae Sot exudes a whiff of lawlessness, a frontier town emblematic of capital and labor flows across porous borders in an era of globalization.

These community schools provide schooling for students living outside the scope of state protection and services. These schools often act as intermediaries for children ensnared in exploitative situations, provide psychosocial support and create cognitive space to envision and plan a future. This case study of migrant community schools explores the significance of schooling for migrant parents, teachers and children. Migrant workers are too often treated as objects of circumstances and not subjects who can articulate histories--of flawed economic policies, colonialism, conflict, and displacement--but this case study captures their interventions to organize on behalf of their families and themselves.

Two overarching questions frame this study: what are the meanings and practices of education for poor, socially marginalized and vulnerable communities? How does the migrant community negotiate and mitigate their vulnerabilities through the schools? This research investigates the types of protection strategies employed by the schools, assesses some of the schooling constraints facing the children, including poverty and lack of legal status, and studies the Mae Sot Burmese community against regional economic and conflict-induced causes of migration and globalization's yawning appetite for low-wage laborers.